Lebanon: The Price of Truth in a Country Whose Elite Silence the Press Using Any Means Possible

A crackdown on journalists in Lebanon is leaving many asking if the country is rapidly becoming a police state and raising questions whether independent journalism has any role to play in state building, or if, indeed, it can even survive.
Lebanon: The Price of Truth in a Country Whose Elite Silence the Press Using Any Means Possible
Demonstrators in Lebanon holding signs that read: "We refuse to bring back the rule of Anjar . . . ." (left) and "Lebanon a place of freedom and democracy; you cannot change its identity." (right)

As Lebanon’s economy starts slowly to make its way toward the abyss during a period of political stalemate over the formation of a new government, increasingly manifest are the signs of a failed state, now more than ever, in this tiny country. Despite President Aoun having been in office for over two years and managing to have avoided a spillover to the war in neighboring Syria, Lebanon seems inevitably on a downward spiral.

Of course many will argue that having received well over a million Syrian refugees over more than the last five years has also had an impact on the economy. Yet, as the first signs of an economy in meltdown appear, the Lebanese should also take into account the cost of the country embracing Aoun as a first ever, fully fledged Hezbollah ally and what the cost of this endeavor has been, socially, politically and economically.

Costly also are the political jostling and the patent crackdown on freedom of expression. Indeed, Lebanon’s problems —both political and economic —can woefully be attributed to the Hezbollah-led government under Aoun taking its lead from other regional autocracies — Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps Saudi Arabia — and turning its back on the days when the country was seen as a beacon of freedom of expression in the region and an example to others. In the past two years, Lebanon has seen a grizzly and alarming silencing of bloggers and journalists through the state security enforcer acting on behalf of the elite to bully, intimidate, and arrest them as they go about their work.

The signs were there in the early days of Aoun’s presidency when entirely peaceful protesters in the centre of Beirut were not only beaten, but then arrested and processed through a military court. If that were not shocking enough, bloggers were then called in for a “polite chat” with security officers of the infamous Cybercrimes Bureau who would routinely force them to take down their posts and hand over their phones — if they were lucky.

But what we are seeing now in Lebanon breaks the mold. During extremely tough economic times and in the midst of a political and geopolitical crisis, internal security officers now are ratcheting things up.

While journalists may have been worried by threats of arrest by the state, now they must also be concerned about the threat of arrest in criminal defamation cases brought by an elite with the means to instigate one who holds a grudge, in a country ranked at one of the most corrupt in the world through a corrupt system of kinship which people here call “Wasta.”

In recent months, a number of arrests of journalists have made headlines sending a chilling message to many others who might want to investigate the elite and their shenanigans: be prepared to pay the price.

Recently, at least two arrests of journalists have shocked many here not only in their threatening, menacing style, but also by the precedents they are setting, both legally and practically. It is now becoming the norm in Lebanon for rich people to file defamation cases against journalists who investigate their wrongdoings, only to find out that the “plaintiffs” have used security officers as their own personal judiciary.

A recent case involving a journalist who reported on an Ethiopian maid being allegedly abused by her boss — which was also reported on by Human Rights Watch — resulted in the journalist actually being beaten, having his phone searched, being interrogated for hours without a lawyer, and facing a fine in the Lebanese courts for thousands of dollars as a result of a defamation case filed against him personally, not the outlet he works for.

The outlet he works for — which happens to be aligned with the prime minister — has no part to play in his defamation case. And if you can get your head around that, just consider the legal process in this case. The person he implicated in his article, a lady of some means, appears to have benefitted from the security services to instigate the criminal procedure against the journalist. This line, which in the west is never crossed (defamation and libel laws are invariably civil law cases, not criminal cases), is a dangerous new precedent for Lebanon and the validity of its media. Who would now be willing to carry out investigative reports on corruption and crime, given the odds stacked up against them to risk potential intimidation, criminal charges, and fines?

The present state of Lebanon’s media is poor and embryonic. Although it has a long way to go before it could consider itself a respected member of the fourth estate, there are individuals who stand out. One or two journalists who have some merit want to set an example for others.

Such examples of state bullying and dubious defamation cases are not “one offs.” As I am writing this, I learn of a new start up Arabic news website called “Daraj” started by Diana Moukalled, a veteran lady journalist of some standing in Beirut. Yet this too was the focus of a police raid just a few days ago, which involved a gang of ten, intimidating police officers arresting and handcuffing a journalist and confiscating material. Again, they were acting on behalf of, or in conjunction with, a defamation case. Unbeknownst to the arresting officers, however, the case had previously been withdrawn by the plaintiff.

The incident caused many to ask on Twitter, “Is Lebanon becoming a police state?” —an entirely valid question, in my view.

But this crackdown is widespread and often appears to be out of control, reaching far beyond just journalists. There was also the case of a respected human rights advocate who was held for five hours of questioning, and who only escaped a beating, he believes, due to his reputation and public image.

Perhaps even more shocking as it pertains to the degradation of basic human rights and freedom of speech is the silence of foreign journalists in Beirut, whom the Lebanese look up to as examples. Unfortunately, few, if any, probe or question the government’s activities. Just recently, a BBC report which touched on the amount of garbage being dumped into the ocean managed to expertly skirt round the main issue at the heart of the matter: corruption.

Indeed, graft has taken over Lebanon like a virus which spares no one. In its wake, it has even consumed foreign journalists here whose tunnel vision steers them around the stench of corruption such that they give Lebanon a clean bill of health every time. The BBC manages to send a drone up in the air to film entire areas of real estate built entirely on garbage along the Beirut coastline, but fails to point out how the elite here create these dumps along the coast to fill their pockets on the lucrative land deal which ensues. Garbage dumped illegally becomes billionaires’ real estate, with the politicians getting rich for doing nothing.

There is a similar story with NGOs and watchdogs. Lebanon has a respected press watchdog. Yet this same organization, which is named after a journalist who gave his life for the profession, continues to mystify us all. It does not appear to actually do anything: its donors are a secret, and it seems afraid to criticize not only the state but even big media, suggesting perhaps that it was created by one or even a few of the media families which control Lebanon’s media to act as a buffer against probity and genuine media accountability.

After all, in Lebanon, nothing is quite what it seems, and the truth — a controversial subject depending on your political affiliation here — remains as opaque as ever. Journalism and the truth that it craves as its stable currency are dying at an alarming rate. If the state continues in its policy, which I believe is directed by a leadership which has a shocking and perennial contempt for the media, there will be no real media left, just huge institutions which parody it, like Annahar — a newspaper once considered the “New York Times of the Middle East,” but now a joke even in the Christian heartlands of a country once called the “Paris in the Middle East.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.